EirGrid recently published its energy scenarios summary document, Tomorrow’s Energy Scenarios 2017, which details its plans for the future development of the transmission grid. The four scenarios outlined in the publication describe different possible futures for the generation and consumption of electricity out to 2040 and are key to encouraging a flexible and robust approach to grid development. The scenarios will be reviewed every two years to take into account changes in the industry and energy environment. “Tomorrow’s Energy Scenarios 2017 has actually became a very big focal point for the industry, and it wasn’t intended to be,” said Marie Hayden, manager of scenario planning at EirGrid, said of the report’s origins. “It was intended to help us with our grid development and ensure we had a reasonable range of assumptions about the future. “However, it seems that everybody is treating it as a reference document because it really looks at the range of wind, the range of solar, the range of data centres and puts all the information into one place. You don’t get that information anywhere else. “We know other organisations – such as renewable energy investors, data centres and people with an interest in climate change – are using the document to help them understand the landscape of the future,” Hayden added. The scenarios are headed ‘Steady Evolution’, ‘Low Carbon Living’, ‘Slow Change’ and ‘Consumer Action’, considering issues such as population growth, economic growth, climate effects and energy-efficiency measures. The potential electrification of heating is a factor, along with changes in consumer behaviour.

Planning for data-centre growth

Data centres account for over 75% of new demand growth in most of the scenarios. Hayden explained the unique challenge of planning for growth in this sector: “Our data centre forecasts come because any company like Amazon, Apple and Facebook that wants to build a data centre here has to apply to us to connect to the grid. Most of the big data centres need a connection directly on to the transmission system itself. “For example, Facebook is building a big facility in Co Meath and we’ve recently just energised a new transmission station to feed that,” she added. “We work very closely with IDA Ireland and that organisation really values the ICT sector and it has focused on that sector. Ireland was known to be an attractive location for data centres and IDA Ireland worked to attract those into the country. We could see this coming down the track, though maybe not at quite this scale. “Two things that probably surprised us was the overall scale of companies looking to connect to the grid at the same time, how much power they wanted overall when you add them up, and also how many of them wanted to locate in Dublin. If someone builds one data centre in Dublin, then other companies want all further data centres to be in Dublin too. It has put pressure on the Dublin grid.” Managing the impacts of this starts at a very early stage in the process with IDA Ireland, according to Hayden. “If we have lots of applications for data centres in one location, we may not be able to meet all those needs and we don’t want to have to turn away business from Ireland. For example, the transmission forecast statement is published every year and that highlights opportunities for connecting demand facilities. “We look at corridors where it’s easy enough to bring capacity – for example, where there are high-voltage transmission lines. Facebook would be a good example of that; it has located its facility in Clonee, Co Meath, right underneath an existing 220KV line.

Electricity supply

The fossil-fuel generators change dramatically in each of the scenarios. The ‘Low Carbon’ Living scenario has coal generation stopping in 2025, while the other three scenarios have the same happening by 2030. The scenarios reflect the many uncertainties surrounding the build-out of renewable generation. It varies between 5600MW in ‘Slow Change’ by 2030 to 12,100MW in the ‘Low Carbon Living’ scenario. Ireland has enormous potential for offshore energy developments. The ‘Low Carbon Living’ scenario assumes 3,000MW of offshore wind generation capacity to be developed by 2030. At present, Arklow Bank, with a 25MW capacity, is the only offshore Irish wind farm. The scenarios see it as likely that there will be large-scale solar photovoltaic connecting to the system at an increasing rate from the mid-2020s. Also, all of the scenarios show biomass generation increasing in capacity over the next 25 years. ”The big trends are probably not difficult to predict. We know that climate change isn’t going anywhere and policies and commitments around tackling climate change are very unlikely to do a u-turn,” explained Hayden. “The level of ambition may change a couple of percent or the timing – 2030 versus 2025 – but the overall trend over the next ten, twenty, thirty years is unlikely to be shifted enormously.” While the document is not a decarbonisation roadmap, under the ‘Steady Evolution’ and ‘Low Carbon Living’ scenarios, some 40% of total electricity demand is met by renewable generation by 2020 – thus, meeting our EU 2020 renewable-electricity target. All scenarios show a decrease in carbon emissions to 2030, but significant changes to the grid would be required to achieve the high renewable generation seen in ‘Low Carbon Living’.

Predicting consumer behaviour

One of the most difficult elements to predict is how the behaviour of consumers will change in the coming years. Hayden highlighted some of the problems: ”Where is technology bringing us? Where is consumer technology bringing us? People put apps on their phones that let them turn on and off appliances. We see new business models out there that have disrupted established industries. There is no reason why that can’t happen with energy and particularly with selling electricity, signing customers up and giving them incentives. “With electricity in the wholesale market, there’s a different price for electricity every half hour in the day. That can be a lot more expensive in the evening peak, cheaper during the night, cheap on a windy day and so on. “At a wholesale level, people who sell electricity to customers can buy at different prices. There are providers out there who have business models which are about providing customers with cheaper electricity on the basis that they don’t use it at peak times. “We don’t see that widely adopted right now – at a domestic level, we don’t really see it at all. A very sophisticated retail pricing is not really there for a variety of reasons. But there is nothing to say that couldn’t suddenly get disrupted. “We plan our grid around this peak demand and if that suddenly changes dramatically, we might find that we’ve overinvested in our grid. The grid has to be able to serve peak demand,” Hayden concluded. You can view the Tomorrow’s Energy Scenarios 2017 Summary Booklet (PDF) and email your views to scenarios@eirgrid.com.